Batter’s Box: Smoak ’em if You Got ’em

Scott Chu covers a handful of hitters from Sunday's action.

Some guys get more interesting with every rock you turn over. At first glance, Justin Smoak (1B, Toronto Blue Jays) looks about a boring as can be. He has a .233 career batting average in 4,324 career plate appearances, and in nine MLB seasons he’s hit 25 home runs just twice. After Sunday’s 2-5 outing where he smacked two home runs and piled up two runs and five RBI, I thought it’d be appropriate to dig around a little to see if there’s more to the switch-hitter than I thought. His 2017 breakout at age 30, where he hit 38 home runs and batted .270, sticks out like a sore thumb in his career stat line. A lot of fuss was made about his power explosion, and at the time, he provided a rather curious explanation—he told reporters, “I stopped trying to hit home runs … which is crazy because I’ve hit the most I’ve hit.” Prior to 2017, he never hit more than 20 home runs in a season. He’s now hit 38 and 25 in back-to-back campaigns and looks well one his way to another 25- to 30-home run year. What’s even more interesting now, though, is his much improved plate discipline. The 32-year-old has learned yet another new trick, it seems, by lowering his swinging-strike rate to just 7.5%, which prior to 2017 had gotten as high as 12.74%. Much of the success in stopping the swings and misses comes from his patience, as he’s swinging at pitches outside the zone just 19.6% of the time, and he’s made this change without really holding back on pitches in the zone. That’s led to a 17.5% walk rate along with an impressive 18.9% strikeout rate.

Now, you’re welcome to point out his paltry .224 batting average and not-that-great .461 slugging percentage if you’d like, but there is some data to suggest that he deserves better than what he has. On a basic level, his .224 BABIP seems to be due for some upward movement, but we NEVER stop at BABIP. If anything, BABIP is a starting point. A number like expected wOBA (xwOBA) is a better tool for determining how well a player is hitting the ball. Expected wOBA is probably the most straightforward expected stat from Statcast when it comes to putting a value on the quality of contact a player is making. Heading over to the Statcast leaderboard (which is always a fun place to be), we see Smoak at a surprising 11th on the expected wOBA standings at .416. His .280 expected batting average and .553 expected slugging are incredibly impressive as well. All of this—the plate discipline and the Statcast data—tells me two things: First, that Justin Smoak is worthy of our attention, and second, that Smoak has the potential to be a top 12 to 15 first baseman going forward.

Justin Turner (3B, Los Angeles Dodgers)—5-5, 3 R, BB. A very Turner-like outing for one of MLB’s few gingers. There’s not a ton of power here, but you already knew that. If you paid for Turner in March, it was for excellent ratios and decent counting stats while he played. I expect his slugging percentage to improve a bit, and I certainly can’t complain about the good health so far.

Hunter Dozier (3B, Kansas City Royals)—4-5, 2 R, HR, 2 RBI. Statcast thinks he’s hitting the ball well but not THIS well. He has an 87-point gap between his actual slugging percentage and his expected one, but that doesn’t mean he’s a fraud—it just means he’s been a bit fortunate. Even if he was hitting closer to his .272 expected batting average and .494 expected slugging, he’d still be worth owning in most 12-team formats that utilize a CI spot (and maybe even if they didn’t).

Lourdes Gurriel (2B/SS, Toronto Blue Jays)—4-4, 3 R, HR, 2B, 2 RBI. That’s three straight days with a dinger, giving him three more home runs than he hit in the 44 trips to the plate he had back in April. I can’t promise he’ll get everyday playing time (even though he’s much more interesting than Eric Sogard or Brandon Drury), but there’s some power in this bat, and he should at least see three or four games a week in the short term.

Austin Meadows (OF, Tampa Bay Rays)—4-4, 2 R, HR, 2B, 3 RBI, SB. He continues to impress at the big league level. He could very well reach 25 home runs and 15 stolen bases, and there’s even potential for a bit more if he gets playing time. Like the aforementioned Dozier, he’s out-performing his expected stats by a wide margin, but an expected average above .300 and an expected slugging over .500 indicate the kid the legit.

Cavan Biggio (2B, Toronto Blue Jays)—3-4, R, HR, 2 RBI. The second to arrive of Toronto’s second generation movement (after Vlad Guerrero Jr. and apparently before Bo Bichette). His call-up was a big surprise to me, and I have no idea what to make of his arrival. I doubt we’ll see much of a batting average here (.220ish), but there’s a bit of pop and speed here. He’s more of a 15-team or deeper play to me, but if you MUST have a rookie and missed on the rest, I guess you can go for it.

Nick Senzel (2B/OF, Cincinnati Reds)—3-5, 4 R, 2B, BB. He continues to tighten his grip on the leadoff spot, though the three failed stolen base attempts in four games are not ideal. Unless Jesse Winker gets out of this slump he’s in (which he might be starting to do), Senzel will likely stay at the top of the order and could finish the year with 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Not bad for a rookie.

Ryan Braun (1B/OF, Milwaukee Brewers)—2-4, R, 2 2B, BB. He’s healthy, which means he’s providing value to those who took a chance on him. I expect at least 20 bombs and 10 swipes from the 35-year old, even if he misses some time down the road. You can’t hate on his .280/.344/.488 line either. He’s still got it, folks.

Nick Castellanos (3B/OF, Detroit Tigers)—2-4, R, HR, 3 RBI. We keep hoping for a power breakout, and it looks like we’re going to keep waiting. This was just his fifth home run of the season, and he’s a bit behind his career-high pace of 26. I wouldn’t be stunned to see him traded, which would only do good things for his value.

Matt Chapman (3B, Oakland Athletics)—2-4, 2 R, HR, 2B, 2 RBI. His strikeout and walk rates are trending in the wrong directions, but he’s still hitting the ball awfully hard. Thirty home runs are all but a given at this point.

Shin-Soo Choo (OF, Texas Rangers)—2-5, R, HR, 2B, 2 RBI. He’s on pace to do almost exactly what he did in 2018. Go ahead and pencil in these stats—21 home runs, 150-ish combined runs and RBI, and a .270/.375/.450 line.

Ben Gamel (OF, Milwaukee Brewers)—2-5, 2 R, 2 HR, 3 RBI. I’m basically obligated to talk about a two-home run performance. Unless you’re in an NL-only or 16-team format, you don’t need him. That is all I have to say about Gamel.

Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire

Scott Chu

Scott Chu is a Senior Fantasy Analyst here bat Pitcher List and has written about fantasy baseball since 2013. He's also the inventor and mascot for Fantasy Curling (as seen the Wall Street Journal) and a 3x FSWA Award Finalist. In addition to being a fantasy analyst, he's a dad, animal lover, Simpsons fanatic, cartoon connoisseur, amateur curler, a CODA, and an attorney.

7 responses to “Batter’s Box: Smoak ’em if You Got ’em”

  1. Derek says:

    I think no matter how Winker does, they could keep Senzel at 1. Then Winker St 2 3 or 4. That Reds lineup has been so bad.
    On another note, is it too early to start predicting where Castellanos could be traded? Cle looks like the most reasonable place but it’s definitely still early

    • Scott Chu says:

      I think they could, Derek, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the manager flipped the two between the 1 and 4/5 spots based on match ups (assuming Winker finds the 14% walk rate he had in 2018). Managers love using righty/lefty splits.

    • Scott Chu says:

      We’ve been expecting Casty to be traded for almost 2 years, so guess away! Cleveland might make sense, but I bet they feel comfortable with their OF (even though they shouldn’t—why else would they have let Brantley go without a qualifying offer?).

      Most of the entertaining scenarios require a shift back to 3B, where he is a brutal defender. The Rangers could be a cool fit, but they’d have to either get rid of an OF or plug him in at 3B. It wouldn’t help them make the playoffs this year, but it’d be a nice move for 2020. The Padres might be a nice fit too, but that also would require a move back to 3rd.

  2. Jim says:

    Scott who do you like between Schwarber or B Reynolds in OBP, SLG format? Reynolds actually out slugging Schwarber but such a crowded outfield in PIT. What say you? Ty!

    • Scott Chu says:

      Schwarber by a mile for me, Jim. OBP and SLG are Schwarber’s biggest strength. It has been a nice hot streak for Reynolds, but I believe in Schwarber’s skills. Would you be surprised if Reynolds slugged less than .400 the rest of the way?

      • Jim says:

        Probably not considering I didn’t know who Reynolds was last month! 10 XBH in less than 80 ABs is kind of elite so obviously he can’t maintain.
        Thanks for your reply!

  3. Swfcdan says:

    Speed is getting non existent. L Cain has been a huge disappointment so far, wheres his steals and his hits?

    With him and T Turner im currently being buried in speed cat. Is it crazytown to offer Cain for Kiermaier? OBP league and Cain isnt even walking so far, and not running with yellboy behind him.

    Also you consider moving Devers for Robles in a keeper? Love both but Devers steals seem a fluke whereas Robles is a burner.

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